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Return of Saturn

April 21, 2024
Saturn

Since I’m a trained scientist I officially don’t believe in astrology, although as a queer woman in San Francisco I’ve had to learn my chart for first dates.  In sophomore year the TA for “rocks for jocks” took us to the planetarium so he could break down the absurdity of the idea that your birthdate and the alignment of the stars would in any way shape your fate.  I still remember the hearing him hiss, “and because these ‘calculations’ were done so long ago, the stars aren’t even in the right place anymore,” as we patiently waited for the heavens to move above us before realizing that the projector was broken, leaving us forever on the cusp of Taurus and Gemini.

In astrology, Saturn takes 27-29 years to complete one full orbit around the sun and return to the same zodiac sign it was in when you were born. It’s a rite of passage, a time when you’re changing into an adult and a whole new phase of your life, and– it’s generally agreed– a time when much of your life is going to go completely tits-up.  The idea was inconceivable to me.  After all, going into 2013 I had things on lock.  I had chosen a two-year graduate degree which and got me home in 2012 in time to get a great new job, keep an eye on my aging parents, and enjoy a nice Christmas with my family. My parents had split up when I was little but the three of us still spent every Christmas together, always with the same traditions.  I came home for every vacation, every holiday.  Maybe we were a little codependent, but not in a bad way, you know? I mean, sure, I realized I was bisexual when I got overwhelming crushes on three (straight) women in grad school but was too chicken to figure out what I was going to do about that, and yes, my dad wasn’t in the best health, and fine, there was a conflict brewing with my mom that I was trying to keep the lid on.  Surely all that would sort itself out if I stuck to the plan and stayed on my path, like Earth orbiting the sun. I had become very used to setting goals and meeting them, and armed with my new five-year plan for ages 30-35 I knew I was going to tick off those life milestones the way I had ticked off all the accomplishments on my to-do list so far.

My Saturn return, according to the internet, began in January 2013.  Every time I read or heard about it I was a little annoyed.  As if some distant planet was going to affect my life.  As if I wasn’t in control. And this is how 2013 went: in March one of my uncles died in his sleep, and mom and I had the first of many fights that year that led to our being estranged.  Over the summer I was dumped– twice– and realized my shiny new career wasn’t quite working out when I noticed most of the cool jobs were going to men and I fell asleep, exhausted, in my car when it was parked outside the office.  And then, in October, my dad died.  Three days before I got the call, I had the strangest dream.  I don’t usually remember my dreams, but in this one we were walking around his house, the house I grew up in, on a normal, sunny day.  He was showing me how he had fixed the place up: the worn linoleum, the crack in the wall.  Dad stood in front of me and said “This is your home, I want you to be comfortable,” which I distinctly remember thinking was a weird thing for him to say.

One thing we don’t talk much about are the small things that get ruined for you when someone you love dies.  For me, it’s spinach dip.  I had a baguette and a container of spinach dip in my hands as I was walking into a birthday party when I felt my cell phone buzz.  My roommate had left two voicemails and three texts telling me to call her, so I stopped outside the party to call her back.  And what she said was 1) she was very, very high, 2) a sheriff’s deputy came to the house to look for me, 3) I needed to call the Sacramento Coroner’s Office, because 4) “Uh, uh, your dad’s dead.”  I called my best friends that night and they got me home, blaring Beyonce so loud I couldn’t think of anything else.  My roommate, who was still pretty high, gave me cold pizza and sat with me all night watching cartoons until it was time to get up and make the worst phone call I’ve ever had to make.  I didn’t even need to say it.  My aunt knew as soon as she asked “How is Dan doing?” and I said, crying, “Well, that’s why I’m calling.”  I haven’t touched spinach dip since.

Every death means that some things are left unfinished, some conversations are left unsaid.  I never got a chance to tell him that I was queer.  At least I can be thankful that the last thing I ever said to my dad was “I love you,” even if his response was “Okay, kid.”  It meant the same thing. We scattered his ashes at the confluence of two rivers, and in his favorite rose garden. A few nights later it was Halloween, and I walked under a full moon feeling like the line between my world and wherever my dad had gone was very, very thin.  I also felt, deep in my bones, a sense of the whole night sky realigning around the hole that had been torn in the center of my life.

Life kept moving, like a river cutting through a city.  I’m not the same person I was before my Saturn return. The following year I sold Dad’s house to pay off my student loans and realized I wasn’t just an adult–I was the only adult in my life.  When I left my job and went on a three-week road trip alone without having another job lined up, no one really asked questions.  I came out as bi and wished I could tell my dad that in comparison to my ex-boyfriends (one of whom dad called ‘that guy’ for two solid years) all the women I dated paid their bills on time. I think he would have been cool with the gay thing, especially if I ended up with a doctor, but I’ll never know for sure. Since Dad died, I’ve spent Christmas in a variety of ways: with friends, family, alone with my dog.  A few times I got a last-minute plane ticket and just went somewhere– anywhere– else.

A decade later, hardly any of the things in my old five-year plan have come to pass.  I have fallen in and out of love a few times, become a godparent, dressed in drag, wrote a few drafts of a novel, climbed a mountain.  An astrologer told me my first big queer love and breakup lined up with my ‘nodal return,’ which I did not like hearing at all. I would love to conclude with a nice tidy ending, like Eat, Pray, Love where the main character falls in love with a hot Brazilian man. Did you know that really happened?  Did you know that in real life she was so anxious about marrying the hot Brazilian man that she wrote a book about the institution of marriage and a decade later left him for her terminally ill lesbian best friend?  Maybe Elizabeth was also in her nodal return.  Although in my heart of hearts I would love a 75-year plan, like Dignan in Bottle Rocket, I don’t because man plans and God laughs, right?  Now I focus on staying curious, having fun, and I try to say the important stuff out loud, especially when I love someone.  My next Saturn return is supposed to come at 60, so I have several decades to find out what the planets have in store for me.  And although I don’t really want to believe that planets millions of miles away are affecting my destiny, sometimes, on a clear night, I walk outside, look up at the stars, and wonder how the sky will look different to me then.

T.A. Edwards lives and work in San Francisco, where she is working on herfirst novel. T.A. can be followed on Insta at @taedwardswritesstuff.

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Guest Posts, Tough Conversations

Cut

April 17, 2024
english

My boyfriend says I don’t listen. He means to him, I suppose. But that’s not true, like so much that guys say. Maybe he feels I don’t listen because I don’t say what he expects. We fight about listening. I don’t want to be my mother. She really doesn’t listen. I can usually parrot back anything I’m told. My mother can’t. In an honest mood, she’ll even admit she doesn’t listen. No doubt she could tell you why. For some people, it always goes back to their childhood, though she’d never blame her father. I’ve told her I can’t make it home weekend after weekend, but she asks if I’m coming every time I talk to her. I keep explaining my summer plans, and she forgets them.  Maybe she thinks they’ll change.

I never think anything will change, especially people. This drives my boyfriend crazy. Because he wants me to stop interrupting him, and if it’s true people don’t change, then I guess he worries that he’ll never finish a sentence, though it’s more like a paragraph that I’m likely to break in on. Because I’m listening, or because I can’t hear.  He doesn’t always hold the telephone receiver to his mouth, so I get mumbles. I interrupt what I can’t hear. My phone isn’t great either. Something wrong with the volume control. He says I yell into the phone when I ask him to repeat what he says. I hate phones.

It’s not enough to consider putting one’s ear to a plastic container that’s touched who knows how many unclean, unwashed heads, never mind the mouthpiece into which words emerge from sneezes and coughing fits. Or that sound. I really hate the sound, just when one is getting into a good book, stirring something on the stove, leaning into a kiss, the phone rings.

In the United States, you can solve the problem. Default to voice mail. Hard to imagine where I live now. I don’t even have my own line, never mind a way to screen calls. Just a loud buzzer telling me when it’s for me. My boyfriend would say I deserve what I get. What do I expect after giving my number to everyone I meet. No one lets me provide the tea or coffee, so the least I can do is hand over a card with my number, a peace offering, an American-Syrian alliance, a souvenir of possibility with my Ashkenazi name in English and Arabic.

I never know who might call or when. Back home in New York, I can guess when not to answer the phone to avoid particular people who always seem to call at particular times. But no one is that consistent here, not the foreigners or the natives.  You make a call when you can get a phone. Not everyone has one. People go to phone booths, where they stand in line. They need change, but change is hard to come by.  There’s a lot of rounding off. A plane ticket to Damascus from Aleppo at 602 pounds, $12.04, becomes 600 or 605, depending on what you have—or don’t have—by way of change. There are no phones on the planes, buses or trains, which is generally where I meet people.

I met a boy on the train from Aleppo to Latakia. I gave him my card. He gave me his. It had a picture of a hotel overlooking water. His parents own a hotel.  I stayed there the next time I visited. Don’t ask. The less said, the better. I listened to his uncle tell me what I was to say when I got back to America, “the hotel is good.” One Sunday in April, months after I met him in late October, this boy called to wish me a Happy Easter. I didn’t know it was Easter. They celebrate two Easters here, Catholic and Orthodox. I don’t celebrate either, unless someone gives me a chocolate egg, which my boyfriend usually does. I remembered what this boy told me during our conversation in October. He explained the Israeli flag, the color, blue.  He said it meant they wanted all the land between the Nile and the Euphrates. I didn’t know that. He’s young, a first- year university student in economics. He only called once, and that was sweet really.

But there are others I just don’t know what to do about. There’s the guy I met by accident in a colleague’s office. He said he was a poet. He spoke English in flowery metaphors. I wasn’t sure I heard right, so I said, “what’d you say” and gave him my card.

He calls all the time. He can even get my landlady to take messages. Usually she’ll only take messages for my mother. When I call him back, he always asks the same question. “Will I visit the camps?” Only once, did I ask, “what camps”? The Palestinian refuge camps.

Did he read my card I wonder. I have a perverse curiosity I quash. I can’t go without my husband I say. He persists. Everyday there’s another message. When I can think of no excuse not to, I return the call. It’s another party line, and my bad Arabic gives me an excuse. I understand what is being said and pretend not to. Hold on, the voice says. I hang up.

Omar calls back. Again and again. I finally give in.  I agree to go for  coffee after work, though I don’t drink the strong, thick Turkish brew or the bitter dark local cups, and the place we go doesn’t have loose Arabic tea, only Lipton teabags. We meet at school, get on a micro-bus, and he chatters freely in English. As we near the Park, on the other side of which is the café he has chosen, he tells me he is a PLO operative, VIP, former translator for Arafat, weapons expert. He’s been everywhere. Sudan, Algeria, Canadian wings, American wings, European wings. Wings. Dismembered birds, I think. All this in a crowded little micro-bus of strangers I hope don’t speak any English.

I look out the window. I can’t see any birds from the high window. I nod my head. The Syrian government wouldn’t be any more pleased than I am. Refugees make them nervous. Refugees talking to foreigners make them nervous. Palestinian refugees make them very nervous. The Security police would be confused. They’ve read my business card. The government does not like to be confused.

I ask for flower tea, zurat. Omar doesn’t understand my Arabic, but the waiter does. As the waiter goes to get the coffee and tea, Omar gives me what looks like a child’s notebook with a bright pink and yellow cover. The paper is perfumed. When I open the thin cardboard cover, I see a carefully inscribed poem, each line inked with a flourish. Rhymes sympathizing with a stranger.

The last time we talked on the phone, I had a cold. That was my excuse for cutting short the conversation, for staying home. But it was true. I really was sick. The poem is disconcerting.  He is wishing me good health. He is lavish with praise. Were he one of my students, I would praise the attempt, smile at the innocent flattery. But he is a friend of a colleague, a stranger. I don’t know what to say. It is no better than the average undergraduate romantic doggerel. I know I’m supposed to like it, to be impressed. I can’t say anything, so I ask him what he wants me to say. He asks about the English, if it is correct. I exhale and note that some phrase is impossible in English.  The whole thing is impossible, but I don’t say that.

He closes the notebook, telling me he will recopy the poem, correct the English and present me with the gift of his heart, these words. I thank him, reminding him that perhaps my husband might misunderstand. He will explain to my husband, he says.  He would not do anything to hurt me.

There is something else, he says, something confidential he must tell me. I look around the restaurant. It’s half empty, darkening with the short winter day, though we are sitting by a window on the west side. I don’t know what he could say for my ears only, what secret that hasn’t been rhymed in the little notebook.

I don’t know how to discourage him. I don’t know what it is I should fear, but  I feel a chill at the base of my back. Perhaps the electricity has been cut. The lights have not yet been turned on. Headlights from the passing cars provide all the light there is. I realize I don’t want to listen, but I don’t really know how not to, despite what my boyfriend says.

Omar says he was a prisoner, in Lebanon. The phalangists had him. I try to remember which group the Phalangists are. They’re not Jewish, that much I know.

In his clipped English, he describes being beaten on a “wind carpet.” The rack.  Nails poked in his ears. Electric shocks all over his body. He repeats that phrase a lot, “all over my body,” as if it’s a euphemism for specificity, something that can’t be said to a woman. There’s the cell. 80 centimeters by 80 centimeters for six months. Smaller than inches. The walls wet with mildew, and what he doesn’t say I don’t want to imagine.  Rats creep under the door, nibble his broken toes, ignore his flailing arms shooing them away. He says something about being cut on his neck. I find myself staring at his neck, looking for scars. He’s left for dead.

He’s found. Palestinians put him in a coffin and stick him in a refrigerator for six days. People are told there has been another martyr for the cause. When they take him from the cold, he bangs on the pine boards. He’s a ghost.

The ghost is caught by the Syrian government, interrogated, tortured. Beaten again. He doesn’t say how. He doesn’t say anything about rats. They want to know who he is. He wants to know where he is. They say Tel Aviv. He says nothing. They say Damascus. He says he has a brother in the camp there. They leave him on a table, smashed, wounds all over his body. His brother appears and calls a doctor who examines the body. The doctor says I can’t treat a political prisoner. The brother puts an AK47 to the doctor’s head. The doctor bandages him. The PLO get him to a hospital.

He says he was a prisoner in Israel, too. But he doesn’t tell me about this experience. I wonder why. He tells me he lost his mind. He kicked the shoulders and back and head of the PLO taxi driver taking him to a hospital. The driver ran over a baby. The baby died. After his wounds heal, he returns to the camp by taxi, with a student he is teaching English. It was midnight. The car crashed. The student died.

At forty, he is twenty again. Over a cup of coffee and a love poem. He wants me to say something. I say I have to go home. I don’t know what else to say. I don’t say I understand Coleridge’s poem better. I never thought about the wedding guest who listens to the aging mariner talk. The albatross. The ghosts.

Omar walks me to a bus stop. When he sees my bus nearing the curb where we are standing, he says he’ll call, that he still wants to take me to the camps, to meet his mother, his child. As I board the white van, pay my six lira, Omar waves. The micro-bus darts into traffic, and I look straight ahead. When I get back to my apartment, the phone rings. I ignore it. As the buzzer sounds, I step into the shower and let the water run.  I don’t want to listen to anybody.

Sandy Feinstein lived and worked in Syria while on a Fulbright Award (1998-1999). Creative non-fiction reflecting on her experiences there appears in the Michigan Quarterly Review and Orange Blossom Review. Her chapbook, Swimming to Syria, was published by Penumbra Press in 2021.

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Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

***

We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.
It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.
Remember, every vote counts in creating a better and more equitable society.
Guest Posts

Disruption

April 14, 2024
village

It was a warm and sunny day in December and the year was 1996, my family and I were eagerly preparing for our trip to Abba, our ancestral village in Imo state, Eastern Nigeria. As the Christmas period approached, there was an air of excitement and anticipation that filled the hearts of all Igbos and Easterners because they must all go back home to the village, and I, as a child, was no exception. It was a ritual for the Igbos. We set out on our journey with great enthusiasm, eager to experience the magic of Abba during the festive season. Amongst the various festive periods celebrated in the East, such as the New Yam festival or “Iri ji,” there was something truly magical about Christmas in Abba that we all cherished.

The journey was an adventure in itself, marked by winding roads that snaked through green farms on both sides, promising cool evening breezes. Along the way, we passed through small villages where children played by the roadside and women sold their wares. It was customary to buy bread for those in the village, a gesture that was warmly received and appreciated. Each glimpse of rural life filled me with a sense of excitement and anticipation for the time we would spend in Abba. As we approached the village, the landscape transformed into fields of cassava and yams stretched out into the horizon, interspersed with clusters of palm trees that swayed gently in the evening breeze. Abba emerged like a hidden gem, its characteristic red earth roads typical of Eastern Nigeria winding their way through the village like veins connecting the heart of the community.

The village was a sight to behold, with its brightly coloured houses, bustling markets and friendly locals, all eager to welcome us. There was something truly special about Christmas in Abba. It was a time of joy, celebration, and community, where families came together to share in the abundance of the season. I felt a sense of pride and connection to my ancestry. Abba was not just a village; it was an attestation to the beauty of Eastern Nigeria and the richness of its culture. I felt blessed to be a part of it, and I knew that I would always treasure the memories of this magical place.

We arrived in the village immediately after the sun went down, the sound of my late father’s Peugeot 504 car horn interrupted the tranquillity as it pulled up to my late grandfather’s home, where I had spent many Christmas as a baby. As the car came to a stop, a group of old women and villagers emerged from their homes, singing and dancing to welcome us. They twisted their tongues and mouths as they ululated to produce familiar sounds that were like a call to other villagers to come and join them in welcoming us for a safe journey. This was a ritual that had been done for many others who arrived before and after us, and it was evidence to the warmth and hospitality of the villagers.

As we settled into our home in Abba, surrounded by the warmth and love of our family and friends, I knew that I was exactly where I was meant to be.

I was always fascinated by the way the houses blended in perfectly with nature. The village was a maze of houses, closely built together with no fences or demarcations separating them. Everyone knew each other, and the sense of unity was palpable. The warmth that emanated from the village was unique and it was due to the close-knit community of descendants from the same family tree who lived in the houses built closely together.

The houses themselves were built in the early ’60s and ’70s, and some had been remodelled in the ’90s but they had managed to retain their old-world charm. I was always fascinated by the old-style architecture of the houses. The way they were built, the way they looked, and how they blended in perfectly with nature was admirable. I was always in awe of how the houses were perfectly arranged in clusters, with the compounds of each family sitting next to one another. It was awesome and inspiring. Each house had unique features that were specific to the family that owned them, and each home had its own story to tell.

As I grew older, I realized the true beauty of the village was not just in its physical aesthetics, but in the lifestyle it offered. The communal lifestyle of the village was something I admired deeply. It taught me the value of community, of helping one another, and of living in harmony with nature. The village instilled in me a sense of belonging and a love for simple living that I carry with me to this day.

The festive season, though short, brought immense joy and happiness. Most workers did not take their leave from work early in the year, but they did so during the period so they could enjoy the close-to-nature life and peace that the village brought.

During our stay in Abba, we played local games with cousins and family, visited other families not in our kindred, and were spoilt with local meals and traditional snacks like tapioca, made out of cassava eaten on its own or with groundnuts or coconuts, and “Abacha” made out of cassava too popularly called African salad turned in palm oil and contained garden eggs and onions and pepper with fish or meat and any green vegetable.

Some days, we watched the village’s traditional dance performance, where the young female dancers wore colourful costumes and were sprayed with money. We could feel the energy of the crowd as they cheered on their favourite performers.

We looked forward to the masquerade displays on certain days, with the big masquerades competing against the smaller ones. We also enjoyed the local “egelege” or wrestling matches where able-bodied young men would contest for whose back would touch the ground first. There were no prizes. The only prize was the boasting throughout the year until the next Christmas for the family whose representative won. I was proud to have been a part of the community’s traditions.

Despite not being able to attend all the events during the period, we always tried our best. There were carnivals to attend heralding the New Year before we all said our goodbyes. As the New Year came, I felt a sense of sadness, knowing that it would be a long time before I could return because I was moving to another country for schooling but I left with the memories of the warm welcome and the love of the community, promising to return soon. We left for the city. The memories of my time in the village stayed with me for a long time, and I often reminisced about the warmth and kindness of the villagers. We had experienced a beautiful and memorable Christmas, filled with love and happiness that I would cherish forever.

Fast forward to 2023, I decided to revisit Abba after many years away. The journey was long and tiring, but I was eager to see the place I once called home. As I drove through the village, I was struck by the stark contrast between the present and the past. As I walked through the village, I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of anguish, pain, sorrow, and loss. The Abba that I once knew and loved was no more. The communal lifestyle that had once been the heart and soul of the village had disappeared, replaced by high fences and gates that separated families and neighbours from one another.

I remembered many of the houses with the old style architecture reminiscent of the past had all been abandoned and were in a state of disrepair. They were dilapidated and some had been replaced by modern, high-rise buildings. The trees and natural atmosphere that once existed were no more, cut down in the name of development to build halls for events and more fenced houses. The air was polluted, and the sense of community that I remembered as a child had slowly faded away.

As I walked through the village, I noticed the rifts between families who were not speaking, even those who descended from the same family tree. Cousins who had grown up in Abba had moved away from the communal lifestyle of living and were living among strangers or in neighbouring villages. The fences were higher than those found in prison yards, and insecurity played a huge role in these new developments. People needed to protect themselves and were apprehensive. In the past, you could get from one house to the other, but now you are restricted by gates, and you have to call before visiting, and even when you do, you have to knock on gates and introduce yourself before you are let in.

I longed for the warmth and sense of community that Abba once had. The more I walked, the worse it became. I wept for my lovely Abba town which looked like a stranger’s land. I visited the popular “Eke” market that occurs every four days, hoping to find some comfort there. The once-colourful stalls were now empty, and the paint on the walls was gone. I felt a pang of sadness as I remembered the lively market where I used to run errands for my mother. I introduced myself to the elderly women gathered under the cashew tree at a spot in the centre of the market. I described who my ancestors and parents were to them, and before I could finish, they recognized me as they screamed and said the usual retort “we carried you as a child.” They said this to everyone. The women told me stories of dead relatives and the lost warmth of the village. Some of the women were in a bad state and some had been forgotten by their descendants. The stories were sorrowful, and I felt the weight of the pain and loss that had befallen Abba.

Development is not always positive because it took away the unique village setting of Abba and its accompanying natural habitat. I longed for the past, for the life that I used to know and love, but it was no more. I longed for the warm embrace of my great aunt, who waited for me with a bowl of traditional meals but she was no longer there, and neither were many of the people I knew. A lot of aunties and uncles had died over the years, and the older generation had forgotten to do reunions and foster peace as they left for the great beyond. Most times, you are introduced to extended family as if you are strangers.

The tall fences that were erected to provide security had become the prison walls that separated the families. I wept for the loss of the community that I once knew.

Nonetheless, I found comfort in the history that these houses and Abba held. Each house had a story to tell, and they might not look the same as when I was a child but they still held great significance in my heart, and I was grateful for the memories and experiences that the village had given me.

As I shut my camera and got into the car, tears streamed down my face from nostalgia and realization for Abba, the warm village that used to be. When life was simpler, and people lived in harmony with nature. The beauty of the houses and the lifestyle of the community were a testament to the power of unity. I left the village feeling inspired to seek out and appreciate the beauty in my own life, and to cherish the sense of community that can be found in the most unexpected places. I thought about the importance of preserving the history and culture of our villages. It’s the only way to keep the sense of community and warmth that Abba once had. I promised to do that in the future, but for now, I will wallow in the pains, the new Abba dealt to me.

Note:
“Eke” is a popular market day that occurs in the Igbo speaking part of Eastern Nigeria. There are four market days (Eke, Orie, Afor, and Nkwo)
“Egelege” is a name for a kind of wrestling
“Tapioca” a name for local food/snacks made out of cassava
“Iri ji” igbo name for new yam festival

Sally Bonn-Ohiaeriaku is an Igbo, Nigerian, woman. An Environmentalist passionate about the art particularly writing and photography. She volunteers with NGOs in her community. She says it is a great way to give back and create positive impact.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

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Your voice matters, now more than ever.

We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.

It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.

Remember, every vote counts in creating a better and more equitable society.

Guest Posts, Relationships

How I Met the Love of My Life on a Small Ship to Antarctica

April 10, 2024
Antarctica

 It was the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music score for the film, “Scott of the Antarctic”, scored for a soprano soloist, women’s chorus, organ and wind machine, as much as the cinematography, that triggered my interest in Antarctica. I loved the film so much that I never forgot when I’d finally seen it and thought of it wistfully every subsequent year. That was in December 1954 when I was 14, in Thurso, the northernmost town on the mainland of Scotland, where I grew up.

My first marriage ended in divorce after my then-wife got the wrong idea when I’d taken a purely platonic female friend to a concert in London. The concert was a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica. That rang a bell for me. What was it about Antarctica that was affecting my life every few decades or so?  Various fortune tellers had told me that I was blessed with a strong sense of intuition and that I should listen to “my voices”. But they weren’t so much “voices” but more feelings that felt like they couldn’t be ignored. I chose not to ignore them.

Ten years after my divorce, I‘d been summoned to a hospital near my hometown where my mother had just suffered a debilitating stroke. After holding her hand and talking to her every afternoon for two months, she died in my arms, I took her wedding ring and for some unknown reason, placed it in my trusty leather purse, to carry with me wherever I went.

A week later I booked my first expedition to the Antarctic with a company called Clipper Cruises. Their ”World Discoverer” cruise vessel was all of 3,500 tons. How was that going to be when we crossed the infamous Drake Passage, I wondered?

The morning before the cruise, I joined all the other excited travelers on the patio of the Sheraton Hotel in Santiago, Chile for a buffet breakfast. That was when it all fell into place.

She was standing all on her own, away from everyone else. I could empathize with her desire for solitude. Nevertheless, I approached her with the pathetic chat up line, “You look like you’ve come from a cold climate.” As it was about 34 degrees C that summer morning in the southern hemisphere, I had dressed in shorts and open sandals. She was in heavy boots, with woolen socks, a thick jacket, and an anorak.
“Well, it’s winter in New York,” she said. “You’ll be in trouble when we get to Antarctica, but I could always lend you some warmer clothes if you like.” She gave me a cheeky smile that immediately warmed my heart. After a very short chat about her plans for the day, she stopped me with, “You’ll have to excuse me now. I have to call my mother to let her know I’ve arrived safely.”

And then she was gone. What was her name? No idea. What about her room number? No idea, too forward a question anyway, but I remembered she did say she might go on the city tour.

We both chose the last bus for the tour of the city, which was practically empty. I didn’t think I could suddenly sit beside her but I did sit on the opposite side of the aisle to her seat. During the tour of Santiago, the bus stopped every now and again to let us all get off the bus to walk to various important sites or viewing points. I followed her around like a lost dog; too shy to speak to her and too frightened of being rejected.  What must she have thought of me, I wondered?

The next day we checked in to our charter flight to the Falkland Islands where we would board our small 3,500-ton expedition vessel. I did manage to have a brief conversation with her and learned that her name was Eileen, but our allocated seats were widely separated on the charter flight. During the flight I left my seat and walked up the aisle.

I found Eileen near at the forward exit of our plane—sitting on the floor of the airplane. She had been sitting in the last non-smoking row of the aircraft but was still surrounded by the cigarette smoke from the rows behind her. She decided her new location would be much preferrable.

“That was a short takeoff run we just made,” I said, doing my best to make conversation.

“Yes, it was only 24 seconds,” she replied.

“What? You timed the take off?” I exclaimed. “So do I, every time.” I was amazed. Was that serendipity or just another sign, I wondered.

During our first briefing on board the ship we were advised to choose a “buddy” so that, as a safety measure, we could walk together during all our shore excursions. Eileen asked me if I would be her “buddy”. My heart leapt and I immediately replied in the affirmative. After that we became inseparable and people quickly began to think we had come on board as a couple.

***
Thirteen days later, at the end of the Cruise, I accompanied Eileen to the Santiago Airport check-in desk as she was about to depart to New York. By this time she had videoed an interview with me to show her family, before I visited them, and also invited me to travel to New York to meet her family and stay with her for Christmas, and New Years.

Since my divorce, I had never thought of remarrying. How would I ever learn how to live with another person? I worried.  But now everything was different. Eileen was the person I wanted to be with for the rest of my life.

Suddenly I had an important realization: I had my mother’s wedding ring with me.

I had been carrying it around in my leather purse ever since Mum had died earlier that year.

Now I knew why.

I extracted the ring from my purse and approached Eileen at the airline desk.

“I just wanted you to know this is not just some holiday romance for me. It’s very serious. This is my mother’s wedding ring,” I said as I slipped it on to her ring finger. “If this doesn’t work out, I want it back”

”Oh, my goodness, Robin,” she said. “Don’t worry, I do not anticipate having to return it to you.” Then there came that smile again. I was in heaven.

On 18 November 1994 we were married in Garden City, NY.

During all this time my fascination with Antarctica did not diminish. That all these tumultuous developments in my life should have resulted from a visit to Antarctica was really no surprise to me. I felt that it was all “meant to be.”

We returned to Antarctica in January 2023. It was our third trip.

Robin Macdonald was born in Edinburgh in September 1940 and refers to himself as The Ancient Scot. He has been writing  memoirs for 8 years. He enjoys writing and sees his memoirs as legacies for his five grandsons ranging in age from 16 to 26. He has been living in Long Island, New York, since he married in 1995. He and his wife continue to enjoy traveling to all seven continents.
***

Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

***

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***

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Guest Posts, travel

A Tasting Menu, Belgian Style

April 7, 2024
Belgian

Stanley Tucci whetted my appetite for sampling a country’s cuisine through travel. I knew my way around schnitzel, wurst, and spaetzle after spending my junior year abroad in Germany. I knew my way around pork on top of pork with pork in Czechia when I had a fiction fellowship in Prague. I knew my way around pork fat on bread, hunter’s stew, mushroom soup, and kielbasa in Poland. I wanted a new challenge, but where? When an opportunity came to present an academic paper in Antwerp this past summer, I saw my chance. My goal was to sample as many national dishes as I could in Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp. Unlike Tucci, there would be no cameras rolling, no luxury transportation, no peeking into the kitchens and cooking alongside the chefs. I would be a pure consumer of a Belgian tasting menu, focusing on my physical and emotional reactions and rate the food as if I were a food critic. But, of course, I sampled much more.

The Appetizers

First Appetizer: Beef Carbonnade

My entry to the Belgian food scene came during a day trip to Bruges and Ghent on my first full day in the country. I arrived in Bruges on a luxury motor coach with fifty others I didn’t know. Our tour guide, Eros, a Spaniard, commanded enough English to make jokes, good ones. But it wasn’t long before the uneven cobblestone and the heat got to me. On one narrow street, I sat down at a sidewalk café. The tour guide asked me if I was okay. No, I was not. An American doctor in the group presented me with a cold bottle of water. An American nurse in the group loaned me her personal fan and sat with me while the group moved on. I don’t think I ever experienced such kindness from strangers. Eventually left on my own, I stumbled into a ten-table café simply called Café-Café run by Spaniards. I know this because the place was littered with flags of Spain and photos of the Spanish soccer team. I ordered beef carbonnade, not a typical appetizer of course, but it was my entry point. I detected the piquant taste of beer in the sauce. I suppose I should have ordered a beer, but I needed the comfort of a Coca Cola Lite. The stew came with Belgian fries and mayonnaise. An American couple from one of the Carolinas. They recognized me from the day tour as the woman who had a meltdown. We chatted a bit. Thumbs up on my first Belgian culinary experience. I noticed, though, that when by myself, I became more observant of my surroundings. Would I have noticed the woman working on her laptop near the front window? Or the woman on the banquette next to me nursing a beer?

Second Appetizer: Vol-au-Vent

The tour proceeded to Ghent, and Eros led us past St. Joseph Church to the marketplace. Concerned for my safety and health, he said, “I’m taking the group to the marketplace and then around the city. You can stay at the marketplace.” It was good advice, and I found another restaurant in the marketplace, Jaggers, where I sat at an outdoor table under an awning. I ordered vol-au-vent, a creamy chicken stew with puffed pastry and Belgian fries. I didn’t need to eat again so soon after lunch, but here was an opportunity to try yet another Belgian dish in a major Belgian city. While I waited, I set to people-watch. I spotted the American nurse from our tour sitting on a bench. I invited her to join me. She was gracious enough to do that. She, too, had physical limitations. Mine is obesity. Hers was recovering from breast cancer surgery. She ordered a salad and a blonde beer. She texted her sister and niece to join us and so we had a merry party. I ordered a blonde beer, too. Our server, my first Flemish Belgian, loaned us his squirt bottle/fan, the kind people use on long lines at Disney World in Orlando. His English was superb. He was the kind of person you’d invite to a party to liven it up. I’m sure he didn’t treat us any differently than other tourists, but he made the experience special. I couldn’t say what others were doing around me, because I focused on Randa, her family, and our server.

Palate Cleanser

First Palate Cleanser: Croque Maison

A writer in my writing family history workshop, Helen, introduced me via email to Edith, a French woman she knew from her junior year abroad in Montpelier in the late 1970s. Edith and I arranged to meet at Mokafe in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, across rue d’Arenberg from my hotel. Although my hotel physically connected to The Foodmaker, I craved real food and not grab and go. Here at the Mokafe was a full menu. I arrived thirty minutes early and ordered the croque maison, a grilled cheese with egg and tomato. It was scrumptious. I studied the vaulted ceilings of the gallery, the sculpted figureheads. I could envision nineteenth-century residents ambling through these balustraded, columned arcades, their heels clicking on the marble, skirts swishing from shop to shop. An American family sat down at a table next to me and ordered waffles. Tour groups promenaded through the archways in a variety of languages.

Edith was a larger-than-life personality wearing a turban and caftan. She immediately assumed a relationship with me, told me the bags under my eyes could be a thyroid problem and that I must have eczema because I was scratching my wrist. Usually people who are that direct I find abrasive and obnoxious. But I couldn’t help but find affinity with her through our shared interests and concerns. Though she’s lived in Belgium a long time, she was not a Belgian national.

Edith and I talked about writing, our various maladies that for both of us included cancer, and love gone bad. She brought me a gift of Neuhaus Belgian chocolates and an artisanal mustard with speculoos, a spiced shortbread. I’d heard of it before as a fan of the Food Network. We sat and chatted long enough to have to find a restroom inside the cafe and to order lunch. I ordered the carbonnade and determined the version I had in Bruges was far superior. Edith insisted on ordering me a beer and she introduced me to fruit beer, much lower in alcohol content. She wanted to get me Pêcheresse Lindemans, a peach beer, but they were out of that. Instead, she ordered me a berry version. It was delightfully refreshing as a sparkling kind of fruit juice. We ventured afterward into Grand Place. We hadn’t gone far before my lower back and the oppressive heat demanded I sit down somewhere. We sat at a café and marveled at the large administrative buildings that bounded the square, a throwback to another bygone era. We ordered Coke Zero. She departed via taxi for her residential district, and I went into Neuhaus on the square and bought some chocolate truffles and an assortment box as future gifts.

Apparently, there are great differences between the various manufacturers of Belgian chocolate. I was instructed to look for how long they’d been in business. Neuhaus was established in 1857 by a Swiss man with Italian roots (the original family name was Casanova).

It was such a delight to be with Edith, because she knew Brussels, she spoke French, we’re about the same age, and we spend a lot of time processing the past. By not speaking the language, I wondered what I could be missing from the experience. Without someone like Edith to guide me, what foods was I not trying?

Second Palate Cleanser: Savory Belgian Waffles

I couldn’t get Belgian waffles off my mind. Near Mokafe I had spotted a sandwich board proclaiming both sweet and savory Belgian waffles. On the way back through the Galeries after saying goodbye to Edith, I stopped at this small shop. I ordered tuna tartare, two of them. They didn’t have enough tuna, so the second one would be salmon. Substitution accepted. Except the waffle was large, 1.5 inches thick and 7 inches tall, and I couldn’t even finish the first waffle. I thought I could take the second one back to my hotel, but the proprietor said I had to eat them fresh. He issued me a refund for the second one. Onto the top of the waffle, into each of twenty-four deep pockets, chunks of tuna piled high, topped with chopped onion, microgreens, and a spicy mayo. I had to eat it with a knife and fork. The crust was flaky and crunchy, the inside softer, made possible by egg whites and yeast. A more-than-satisfying bite.

The Entrees

First Entrée: Moules Frites

Moules frites is a Belgian national dish. I’ve always liked mussels, but at Legal Seafood in New Jersey, the mussels had gritty beards and so many did not open during steaming. In Brussels, at La Marmiton, a restaurant at rue de Bouchers within the Galeries Royales Saint Hubert, recommended to me by the staff in my hotel, a double decker pot came my way. The server lifted the top pot to reveal a heavenly aroma and gleaming obsidian shells with soft meat inside them. The top pot was to be used for the empty shells. The mussels swam in a peppery, white-wine broth with chunks of carrot, celery, leeks, and onion. Naturally, a net-like metal container of Belgian fries accompanied the mussels and came with mayonnaise. I ordered Pêcheresse Lindemans, the peach beer that Edith had first recommended. I could not stop scooping up the broth with my spoon, not even considering that was what the bread was for.

I watched other tourists, in particular, one group of Japanese men, order and enjoy the moules frites. It was the right thing to order in this place at this time. Moules frites and beer just went together like peanut butter and jelly. A Spanish couple and their daughter sat at a table across from me. They did not order the mussels, but I watched the wife order bread basket after bread basket and wondered why I hadn’t thought to dunk bread into the moules broth.

Perhaps I wanted to drown my aloneness in the food, in the white wine sauce, in the cream, in the act of pulling mussel meat out of the shells and letting the empty shells clink against each other in the blue pot. With every sip of beer, which I never ordinarily drink, I let go of the person I was to maybe become the person I wanted to be: a younger, svelte cosmopolitan.

Second Entrée: Waterzooi

Liz, an eighth-grade educator from Westchester, New York, was presenting at the same Antwerp conference as I. We’re colleagues from Gratz College where I received my Ph.D. in Holocaust & Genocide Studies and she’s nearing completion of her dissertation. It was so good to meet up with someone I already knew. A wave of relief washed over me when she came through the revolving doors of the Hilton Antwerp. We ambled to ‘t Pukte, which I had scouted out in the Grote Markt in Maalderijstraat during the afternoon, because we both wanted genuine Belgian food. I had to try the waterzooi, a chicken stew in a cream sauce. To me, it wasn’t as comforting as an American chicken pot pie. Maybe you need puff pastry for comfort like Liz’s vol-au-vent. I could see waterzooi as a dish served on a cold winter evening to warm up the bones from a day out in the city or village. Leeks, potatoes, carrots, cream, chicken stock, chicken breast, and butter. I didn’t notice what other people were ordering or eating. I only noticed the temperature dropped and it became quite breezy, even chilly.

Third Entrée: Moules Frites Redux

I yearned for moules frites again and decided to revisit ‘t Pukte by myself on my second night in Antwerp. This restaurant offered fourteen different entrée versions of mussels. I ordered the “Antwerp” version, apparently made with local Antwerp beer, not white wine. The broth did not have the depth of flavor or the seasoning as at La Marmiton. A pot of mussels was brought to a table of two German men. The pot I should have ordered. I asked the server what version of mussels that was. Her response: the chef’s special mussels made with white wine, garlic, spicy herbs, tomatoes, and I imagine too the butter, leeks, potatoes, carrots, celery, and onions. Maybe I was too tired after a long day at an academic conference at the university. Maybe I was still disappointed that a Flemish children’s writer I had met a decade ago at an event at New York City’s Flanders House had cancelled dinner with me. I almost spoke to the Germans in German, but I didn’t.

Fourth Entrée: Another Beef Carbonnade

On my last night in Antwerp, I tried the carbonnade again at my hotel restaurant. Not only was the service deplorable, but also this version was the least successful among my tastings. The meat was tough. I could not taste the beer. It was clear to me that it was time for me to return home.

Dessert

First Dessert: Cuberdons

Edith introduced me to the cuberdon, a traditional Belgian candy, a jelly-filled cone, almost shaped like a Hershey’s kiss but taller. The traditional flavor is raspberry. I bought an assortment, and through meticulous taste-tasting, preferred the honey flavor. It reminded me of the gummy, honey-flavored Pine Bros. cough drops that I sucked on as a kid whether I had a cough or not.

Second Dessert: Cheese Platter

At La Marrmiton, I opted for the cheese plate as dessert. Despite my lack of a gall bladder and the ability to process dairy, I did fine with three slivers of Belgian cheese, one of which may have been the most local cheese, Fromage de Bruxelles, a cow’s milk cheese with a rind. These two remaining cheeses could have been Postel, a hard cow’s milk cheese with a nutty flavor and no rind, and Remedou, a hard cow’s milk cheese with an orange-brown rind. I will never know for sure. I wish I had thought to ask what these selections actually were.

Third Dessert: Belgian Waffle

Dinner with Liz at t’ Punkte in Antwerp’s Grote Markt ended with my order of a Belgian waffle with sliced strawberries and whipped cream. It was much easier to eat such a waffle as a dessert. The cream just eased the swallowing of the flaky crust.

Fourth Dessert: Belgian Chocolate Mousse

While the Hilton in Antwerp disappointed in many ways, it did make the creamiest Belgian chocolate mousse, accompanied by the most exquisite Belgian chocolate truffles that made me say out loud, “Oh, my G-d, yum.” No one heard me.

If I had been traveling with Edith, I think we could have ventured into the kitchens and watched the chefs create their traditional fare, even if the food was planned to satisfy tourists more than nationals. But by being alone, I managed to observe a fuller menu and a fuller complement of cultures and their reactions to Belgian food.

Maybe I need a theme when I travel, especially when I travel alone. I’m looking for something outside myself. Some sort of connection, a raison d’être. I’m not Belgian. I have no Belgian roots. Yet, I experienced the country intimately through its food, through the consumption of carefully curated ingredients into delectable delights.

Barbera Krans

Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her essays have appeared in The Manifest-Station, South 85, The Smart Set, Gravel, Collateral, and other journals. She lives and teaches in New Jersey.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

***

Guest Posts, Relationships

Crossing the Threshold

March 29, 2024
prayer
The bridegroom carries his new wife over the threshold to start a life together and we all sigh at the romance! But I have crossed more than one threshold in my life. In some cases, like the birth of my son, they were new beginnings filled with joy.  Others, like the death of my husband, left me in despair.  At times these thresholds were decision points, but others were crossed before I even understood what I had done. That was the case with my retirement and a move across two states.

My husband died in 2010 and for the next six years I immersed myself in my job as a school superintendent.  I spent two Christmases at my son’s house and loved being with my grandsons.  Retirement and a move to their town started looking very attractive.

Signs that this transition might be a challenge popped up one Thanksgiving a few years before I moved, when we all gathered at my sister’s house for Thanksgiving.  I joined my son for breakfast at their hotel the day they were leaving.  I brought up Christmas and assumed I would be joining them again.  He studied the menu and then scrolled through his phone, not looking at me.  Still scrolling he casually announced, “We don’t want you to come on Christmas this year. Why don’t you come after Christmas.” I sat there, mute for a few minutes, then I got up and left the hotel in tears. The atmosphere was tense when we said our goodbyes at my sister’s house several hours later.  Never one for outright conflict, I tucked this memory deep in my brain’s filing cabinet.

***

A recent blog on retirement statistics announced: “On average, 10,000 baby boomers reach the average retirement age every day.”  In 2016 I was one of the 10,000, retired, widowed, and living in a new town, where my son and his family also lived. I have often wondered if this move was a good idea.  I justified it to myself as a favor to my only child. When I get older and need assistance in daily life, I won’t be a day’s drive away.  It may be more honest to say I was lonely without my job and without a family.

Navigating this new life has been a challenge. The big stuff happened, as it usually does, in relationships.

My son was in high school the last time we lived in such close proximity. Two- or three-day visits and sporadic phone calls have been the norm since those days. That fact did nothing to quell my expectations that we would spend the rest of my days in a loving, close relationship.

One evening a few weeks before I moved, my son and his family had dinner with me at a local restaurant a block from their house. The place is a beloved Greek eatery with a deck, umbrellas, and picnic tables. I chose a spot facing my daughter-in-law who looked as lovely as she always does.  I thought: “This is what I’ve been waiting for…a family dinner in a favorite spot…”  My mind took off, imagining Sunday dinners at my house……my son stopping by after work for a drink…babysitting my grandsons. Heaven!

My son got up to greet friends and acquaintances in the restaurant and my daughter-in-law focused on helping the boys decide what they wanted to eat.  Her long blond hair draped over her shoulders, onto her fashionable black maxi length dress. She began to tell me about the news from her large extended family in the Delta of Mississippi, not far from Oxford. Several sorority friends from college stopped by to say hello and they all talked over each other excitedly.

“Don’t you look the cutest”.  “I love your hair that way”. “How’s your grandmother, she’s so funny!!”   Her infectious laugh drew smiles from nearby tables, and she was the center of attention at ours.

My son, who had been quiet during our meal, gathered up the boys after dinner and they started home.  My daughter-in-law and I lingered to drink our wine and chat. The buzz around us got louder as the deck filled up with diners.

“…..worried about you moving here….. doesn’t know what to expect”.  Those words found their way through the noise.

“ Who?”

“R—”

“Why?” My stomach tightened.

“What’s he think I’m gonna do?  I’m not gonna butt into your lives!”

We stopped to pour more wine…She continued to tell me what she apparently thought I needed to hear.

“We’ve got our own traditions and routines, Ruth.  And you need to make your own.”  I thought, “you are one tough cookie” and I grudgingly tipped my imaginary hat.   I said, “I am glad you are being honest. Part of the tension last year around Christmas happened because R___ was given the job of telling me I wasn’t welcome on Christmas Day. It might be better if you and I talked.” I mimicked the blunt way he had blurted out the news.

“Oh, I didn’t know that”.  Heightened emotion and the wine tinted her porcelain cheeks. I ruefully noted to myself “She would be quite a formidable opponent if I chose the competition path.”

As we walked back to their house, she unexpectedly remarked,” I feel so much better”.  I realized it had not been easy for her to tackle the boundary issue with her mother-in-law. I had plopped myself into their pond and the ripples seemed threatening.

I had bought a house, moved my furniture, and there was no going back now.  Somehow, I needed to build a new life and accept that it would not look like a Norman Rockwell painting.

A prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian, eventually became the famous serenity prayer, a staple of all the 12-step programs.  It became mine.

“God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”

This became my daily and sometimes moment-by-moment prayer over the next seven years.

My son was chairman of the school board during the COVID mask controversies.  He rebuffed any advice I had as a former school superintendent. Serenity prayer.

The mythical Sunday dinners that took enormous effort by an inadequate cook (me) lasted 45 minutes because everyone was busy.  I gave away the dining room table and created a study nook for myself.  I took them out to eat when it was convenient for everyone.  Serenity prayer.

My grandsons, 7 and 9 when I moved, enjoyed coming to my upstairs floor full of their video games, board games, and order out menus.  It dawned on their parents that this was a safe place for the kids to be and it afforded them some free time.  Serenity prayer.

I deliberately found volunteer activities that used my skills and enthusiasm, involved myself in community organization that focused on building  better government, and made many friends along the way.  I took control over what I could do and let go of what I could not make happen.  Serenity prayer.

I ask my son to lunch one or two times a month and he has started suggesting it himself sometimes.  That is the only time I am with him by myself, and it has taken seven years for those conversations to become more personal.  He is married to a strong woman, has a law practice, is maneuvering the teenage years of two boys, and I am not his top priority.  Serenity prayer.

And then one day, during a family trip to Ireland, my daughter-in-law sought me out to talk about a personal issue that was troubling her. Somewhere in the time we spent together that day, I heard: “I love you” and “I trust you”. Serenity prayer.

Ruth O’Dell is an emerging writer with a previous publication in Atticus Review. Ruth is a retired educator living, loving, and writing in Oxford, Mississippi.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

***

Guest Posts, Relationships

The Book Exchange

March 26, 2024
book

“He stole my book,” I moaned to my friends and co-workers, my bodega guy, my bodega cat. Anyone who would listen. “He stole my book. I love that book.”

They responded patiently.

“I’ll buy you a new one.”

“He probably lost it.”

“Don’t you have one of his too?”

All valid statements. But I wasn’t ready to let it go.

After work one night I sat at the kitchen counter, hunched over my phone, willing a text to come from this book thief I went on six dates with. Six. Then, without so much as an abracadabra, he disappeared like a white rabbit in a magic trick.

My roommate at the time told me to forget him.

“He’s a butterfly,” she said. “He flits from one thing to the next.”

I nodded. I knew she was right, but I was still stuck in that place where every word, every text, every kiss seems to hold the great unknowable answer to what went wrong. If I could just remember exactly what he said on that last Sunday date when we aimlessly traipsed around Greenpoint, surely I would be able to figure this out, I thought. But a close reading didn’t help. There was no subtext. No hidden meaning.  His disappearing act said it all.

On the subway soon after it ended, I winced as the train stopped at Delancey Street. A few days earlier I almost crashed into him as I rushed out of this station. I was running late for what would become our final date. He was standing on the corner, leather jacket unzipped, bass guitar strapped to his back, and that look. That look that I swear he must practice in the mirror—a mixture of sheepishness and amusement and something else that I could only describe to my friends as fearlessness.

“It’s weird,” I said to my friend on the phone after date number three. “When you start to see someone there’s a level of fear isn’t there? That you’re not going to fall or the other person isn’t going to fall with you. He doesn’t seem to have that fear.”

“Maybe he’s just braver with his emotions?” she offered.

“Maybe,” I replied, but I caught my voice trailing off the way it does when I want something to be true, but know it’s not.

Still, I held out hope. We went to dinner and the movies, his neighborhood and mine, a cute park date mixed in, several craft beers, and an impromptu bar crawl. And finally, The Book Exchange. After drinks in Bushwick, we were back at this place. I gravitated toward his bookshelf as I always do. I work in publishing. We sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor, perusing his collection. My eyes landed on a few Ishirugo books.

“One of his is my favorite,” I said.

And that’s how it happened. He gave me When We Were Orphans, and the next time we met, I gave him Never Let Me Go. The irony is not lost on me.

Soon after that, the texts started trickling out. The staring contest with my phone began. He was fading. I grasped a bit at the empty space he left until I didn’t anymore and left his last noncommittal message unanswered.

What he didn’t know—when he was ignoring my texts for days, when he was lending me a book and taking one of mine, when he was pulling me in only to push me back—is that I’ve had only one serious relationship. That all that’s been in between is a smattering of dating. He didn’t know he had been the first person in years I actually liked. He didn’t consider what was between the lines. It wasn’t bravery in his eyes; it was indifference. And only six dates or not, it still stung.

Weeks after I let that last text hang, deleted the message thread, and un-followed him on Instagram, I heard through the grapevine of our mutual friends that my story followed a very particular pattern. A friend’s friend had been down this very road: a handful of dates. He seemed to like her a lot. He totally flaked.

My mind flashed to the bookcase in his living room. I remembered the collection appeared to be growing. Books were stacked haphazardly on top of others and shoved in tight like misplaced puzzle pieces. Many of them were yellowed, with faded spines and dog-eared pages. They looked awfully well-loved.

I hope, at least, he reads them.

Jess Harriton is an editor and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has appeared on HelloGiggles.com and in Concrete Literary Magazine. 
****

Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

Life isn’t easy and in this gem of a book, Amy Ferris takes us on a tender and fierce journey with this collection of stories that gives us real answers to tough questions. This is a fantastic follow-up to Ferris’ Marrying George Clooney: Confessions of a Midlife Crisis and we are all in!

***

Guest Posts

Immigrants in America: Notes from the Irish Shadows

March 17, 2024
Irish

This story may not be for the faint of heart. Current times might call for a trigger warning; this story involves substance use, mental illness, suicide and death. In balance with these dark truths comes a tale of love, perseverance, and the essence and strength of family ties.

As family stories go, sometimes its difficult to know where to start. Perhaps I should begin with what I know best, me. I am the youngest of four daughters, born into a metro Detroit, working-class family, with parents that were typical of the times. Three of us girls were “tow haired” blondes, with one brunette thrown in to keep things interesting. Dad was in a union blue-collar job. Mom was home raising us kids. Mom liked to get her teased up hair “frosted” as was popular in the 70’s and couldn’t have weighed more than 115 pounds on her 5’ frame. In the chaos of rearing four girls, each about a year apart from one another, she managed to simultaneously sew us God awful 1970’s patterned clothing (with the likes of plaid designs, bucket hats, and an especially distinctive pair of bell-bottomed pants made from a 7-Up pattern material) bowled weekly with the ladies, and had a meat and potatoes dinner on the table every night at 5 for Dad.

All four of us sisters shared a small bedroom when we were pretty young, and eventually had two to a room after a modest addition to our house.  I didn’t realize it at the time, because it didn’t necessarily feel like we had much growing up, but we kids were blessed with something better than gold. We had stability, learned a sense of right and wrong, and knew that no matter what, we always had each other. It was a recipe for a family foundation of granite. I never truly understood how rare and valuable this gift was until I was a bit older. Though on the surface our childhood might appear idyllic, there were troubled currents just below the surface.

My Dad was a contrast of character strengths and weaknesses. He was a handsome, short-statured man, with a face framed by dark, curly, short hair and emerald colored eyes that twinkled after a few beers. As a kid, I remember my Dad’s two sisters, rather vaguely to me at the time, advising us girls to forgive my Dad for his flaws, alluding to a deeper, hidden past we didn’t understand. On the one hand, my Dad was hard working, instilling in us girls a oxen-like work ethic. We learned not to ask for things. As teenagers we had babysitting and other jobs to obtain most things beyond our basic necessities. However, Dad was generous at Christmas, helping to make our holidays special growing up. He passed on a moral code that included consideration for those less fortunate in life. I recall him helping an elderly lady, unknown to us, home from church after she fell outside on the church steps. Once, as a small kid, I was making an ignorant comment about a kid that was probably mentally challenged, and my Dad, in a patient tone, taught me never to be unkind to people that were born with afflictions outside of their control.

These childhood lessons, now hard-wired in my brain, have made me a better human. There was a somber side of my childhood as well. My Dad had a temper that often got the better of him and us. He would get angry if he heard us giggling or talking when we were supposed to be sleeping as small children. He would explode, possibly throwing a shoe at us to make his point. I recall if something got broken in the house being rounded up together, as if in a criminal line up, to suffer the consequences. The guilty party was spanked; therefore, confessions were never forthcoming. The only sounds were fear-filled tears, of course followed by threats of “I’ll give you something to cry about!”. One of the most shameful elements of my childhood was my problem with bed wetting. Control of this problem was ever elusive to me when I was young, yet I suffered the disgrace of my Dad’s temper in the morning non the less. Fear, like most things, can be a double-edge sword; fertilizing your growth or shrinking your spirit like Roundup on a weed. Now, as I reflect on my aunts’ revelations that my Dad had some demons in his past, it turns out in fact, there were some neon lights illuminating his struggles, as both a human and parent.

Now you may be wondering where does the immigrant story fall into place here. My Dad’s parents were both Irish immigrants, whom sadly, I never had the privilege to know. Our Irish roots instilled pride and was the steel of our family bond. As a kid, I remember my Dad advising me that the only ones you can truly count on are family. Grandpa Frank, tall and thin, was from Tralee in County Kerry, eventually landing in Detroit after serving in World War I. My Grandmother Delia, diminutive in frame, with large, kind eyes, came from County Sligo, meeting and marrying my grandfather in Detroit. I recall hearing tongue in cheek stories as a kid, that our Irish relatives settling in Detroit in the 1920’s were kind enough to facilitate the flow of spirits during the dry times of prohibition, hiding the booze in a wagon by having the kids sit atop of it in transport. Additionally, my Grandpa fit the Irish immigrant stereotype, by serving as a Detroit cop for a time. He eventually opened his own pub in Corktown, fittingly titled Shamrock Bar. Family lore would indicate this is when things began to sour for this newly established American family.

Dad was the youngest of 6 children, all born in the 1920’s and 1930’s. This was a family of small framed, fighting Irish. My two porcelain-skinned aunts were beautiful, one raven haired, and the other with an auburn tint. The boys were handsome as well, with muscular frames, with dark hair and eyes the color of the sea. My oldest two uncles served in WWII. Notably, both were captured by Germans and held in prisoner of war camps. We didn’t hear much about their experiences though. The stoicism of this generation did not embrace private or public sharing of the troubles they endured. Men during that time, and most definitely those in our family, preferred certain things be left unsaid.

These two oldest boys proved to have opposite outcomes upon return from the war. My oldest uncle went on to college to become an engineer, get married and raise a family. He was outgoing and friendly, with a true Irish “gift of the gab”. At family parties, with all of us cousins ranging from little to big, he would throw change into the grass and we would dive in to see who could find the most money. Maybe this sounds odd, but us kids loved it! A quarter back then could buy a bagful of candy at the corner store. My sisters and I also had fond memories of him paying us to take a bite of his homemade pickles (which we hated and I don’t think I ever did- cash or no cash).

Alternatively, the immigrant’s second son did not fare so well in life. I recall asking my Dad about this brother, who died before I was born, and I was quickly admonished that “we don’t talk about that” with the pain evident in his voice.  History and truth can become blurry, especially when hidden under a veil of shame and sadness. This was especially the case with our family history of mental illness, substance abuse and trauma. I learned at a young age; these were among the things left unspoken and thereby maybe could become less real.

Family stories point a crooked finger at my grandfather. The story goes that he only had time and attention for his eldest son, shunning my Dad and his other brothers and sisters. Grandpa Frank became a “mean drunk” after opening his pub in Detroit. In our family, at least for my Dad, suppression was the preferred weapon of choice to combat these ugly childhood memories. My aunt, the most likely to shine a light on family secrets, gave us some clues about their childhood miseries. Some stories include one of my Grandpa kicking my Grandmother and their children out on the street after a fight, leaving them to sleep in a park. Another time my grandfather brought home a woman from the bar and had sex with her, while my aunt hid terrified under the bed, unable to get away. My Dad, exhibiting his grit as a small child, stood up to his scary, probably larger than life Father, saying “Don’t you hurt my Mom!” during one of their fights. My aunt provided a glimpse into the unsettling childhood they experienced.

However, there were good times too. Dad, after a couple of tongue-lubricating beers, would share some of his fond memories growing up. Grandma ran a boarding house for Irish immigrants that were newly settling in Detroit. He relayed his love of the residents’ Irish accents and their telling of colorful tales. My grandmother’s youngest sister was the last of her siblings to move to the U.S. from Ireland. My Dad would spend summers with her and her husband at a lake with his cousins. My aunt was a message runner for the IRA in Ireland before moving to the U.S. She was strong woman not willing to take guff from anyone. My sisters and I learned to play euchre from her and my Dad when I was 7 or 8 years old. Let me say you quickly understood not to make the same mistake twice, not an easy lesson for a young, not so sure of herself girl, like me at the time. Her Irish husband, a born leader, was one of the founders of the autoworker’s union in Detroit and an elected congressman for a time.  I suspect he was a great role model for my Dad as a child. My hunch is that my Dad’s childhood experiences with these relatives resurrected him from the ashes of his immediate family.

Now back to my grandparents. I know it is an easy leap to villainize my grandfather. After all, he did some terrible things. As I did not have to live directly with their consequences, I am likely more generous of spirit than Dad and his siblings would have been in this story’s telling and ending. I also have the luxury to view this family history through today’s lens, acknowledging the role of PTSD resulting from the multiple traumas endured in these lives. These truths lead me to pause when I consider the broad family portrait that I attempt to paint now. I wonder what led my grandfather to move to the U.S.; how much poverty and hardships had he endured as a young person? Of course, he also served in WWI, and I don’t know what emotional wounds he sustained there, as PTSD was not even a consideration back then. I wonder if not having other tools, he used alcohol to sooth long buried emotional scars. Maybe any truth is blurrier than the surface implies.

The biggest causality in this story is my Dads older brother, the second born son. He clearly suffered childhood trauma, likely combined with undiagnosed depression or other mental illness. In addition, he went on to experience wartime atrocities that I can only begin to imagine, being held captive in Nazi Germany. Sadly, I heard he received medals for “being good at killing people” during the war, which could not possibly lend itself to decent mental health. I am sure given little to no alternatives, alcohol was the salve with which he treated his nightmares. He would terrify his family shooting off guns in my Grandma’s house, and go off to bars to get into fights.

My Mom tells me they would “have him locked up but sometimes he would escape” from a mental hospital (I would guess the word hospital wrongly implies there was healing going on there). Eventually he took his own life by hanging himself in a Detroit park on the 4th of July. How sad and ironic a tribute to our nation, for someone fighting our wars, to die on Independence Day on home soil. I recall in nursing school, many years ago, my psychiatric nurse instructor said “sometimes there are situations worse than suicide” and I did not appreciate what she meant at the time.

When I reflect on my unknown uncle, I think I may have more insight on her statement now. I feel empathy for this man I never knew, and just as much for my Grandmother, as she had to watch her son self-implode. Indeed, my Grandma entrusted all of her sons to our nation’s military. Her third son served in the Korean War, and my Dad, while serving in the Army, although not during wartime, survived his forearm being crushed during Army bomb testing. Shades of the movie Saving Private Ryan hold a kernel of truth for my paternal family and especially Grandma Delia. Despite, or perhaps because of, the turbulent times they endured, my Dad and his family taught me a sense of family unity, much like the Irish Claddagh, tightly knit and bound together with friendship, loyalty and love. My Irish roots, as seemingly impossible as a rose in the desert, survived and thrived, despite the harshest of conditions.

I mourn the life of my Uncle. His mental health and ultimately life, though unacknowledged at the time, was but one small part of the currency paid to win the war. In the end, I now understand the lesson my aunts tried to teach me as a child. I not only forgive my Dad for his shortcomings; I am grateful for all he and his family sacrificed for me. I marvel at his ability to have provided a solid foundation for my Mom, myself and my sisters, despite the adversity he faced. Our Irish family is but a part of the broader immigration story of the U.S. This family, along with others that have come before and after, provide the backbone for our nation and a richness of culture that is distinctively American. Thank you, Uncle Bud, this story is dedicated to you. I hope you have the peace and love in your next life that eluded you in this one.

J. Ranger, although wizened to the ways of the world, is a novice in the writing community. She is clearing her throat and using her voice for the first time in a long while. Her brief memoir and snapshot of how her family came to be in the United States, shines a light on the struggles of family to overcome its past, and some debts our nation forgot it owed.

cancer, Guest Posts

The Worst Part of Cancer

March 13, 2024
cancer

“I meant to tell you.  The same day you told me about your diagnosis, my husband happened to be listening to a podcast about cancer patients’ reflections on the worst part of their experiences.”

“Oh” I reply to my neighbor across the space between our respective porches.  We live in a historic district.  She’s standing on the wrap-around porch of her Victorian, while I’m sitting on the side-porch of my Colonial.  The space between a mere 12’ feet or so.  I imagine this is how neighbors socialized a hundred years ago, and we still do today.

“Yeah, he said universally everyone reported that the worst part of their cancer was the time between the biopsy and receiving the results.”

“Huh,” I respond, “that really wasn’t bad for me.  I wasn’t all that worried about it.”

As an avid yogi, I spend a lot of time focused on being present.  Post-biopsy I was primarily pissed off that my boob hurt from all the needle pricks and the hematoma that developed as a result.  I spent a weekend replacing ice packs in a tight compression bra and trying to figure out how to sleep without putting pressure on my left breast.

The purple glue covering several inches of my skin was strange.  Necessary to keep the three incisions shut, but made it appear like my breast had been in some sort of fist fight and ended up with a black eye.  The wide band of the compression bra hit in a different spot than my normal bras and initially annoyed the hell out of me.  Undoing the Velcro strap to switch ice packs was no big deal, but it took a bit of Cirque du Soleil navigation to grab the strap that had fallen over my shoulder and wrangle it back up and affixed to the front.  I thought I couldn’t wait for the required 24 hours to pass so I could remove it.  Once off, I missed its support.  Minor movements and jiggles called out to me with twitches of pain.

My poor cats, always concerned if I’m sick, piled on top of me that first night, making it difficult to sleep.  I eventually ended up outside on the porch swing around 5am.  The May air was cool, a light breeze rustled through the leaves of our soaring 100+ year old oak trees.  The porch swing gently swayed, I covered myself with a soft couch blanket, and finally I slept.

Amid all this physical discomfort, some part of me thought, “This better be something. I can’t imagine going through all of that out of an abundance of caution”.  I always envisioned a biopsy as a quick needle to an area, suck out some tissue, then off you go.  Little did I know what an MRI-guided core needle breast biopsy entailed: an undetermined amount of time in an MRI machine in what the medical staff referred to as “Superman Pose”.  Face down, arms out in front, left breast in a cage.  Instructed to stay “completely still”, I went in and out of the MRI machine more times than I could count.  The construct of time ceased to exist.

When the resident went over the possible complications with me prior to obtaining my consent, he mentioned “insufficient sample”.  That should have jumped out at me.  I should have realized that meant it wasn’t easy to pinpoint the spot to biopsy.  Hell, the fact that an MRI with contrast was even necessary to find the spot should have alerted me that this wasn’t an easy task. But I was a cheerful patient, simply going along with the medical process.  Trusting that the experts around me were doing the things that were necessary.

The table initially rolled me slowly in for images.  Whirling noises and loud banging, like rocks tumbling through a barrel, bounced around my head.

I told myself to focus on my breathing.  The nurse who had scheduled the biopsy asked me if I was claustrophobic or would need anything to help me calm down.  I told her yes, that I was a bit claustrophobic, but I was confident I could yoga breathe my way through it.

I’m a good yogi after all.  I won’t be here long. I made it through the abbreviated MRI breast screening just fine.  That only took 10 minutes.  I can do 10 minutes. Just stay calm and breathe.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Am I moving too much with my breath?  They told me not to move.

How do you breathe without moving your chest?

Okay, maybe don’t breathe so deeply.

Shallow breaths.

Inhale.

Don’t move.

Exhale.

Smaller breaths came more quickly; I felt slightly light-headed.

Am I going to hyperventilate?

How much will I move if I pass out?

I tried to make myself breathe more slowly, while also not fixating on my breath.

Focus on something else.

I envisioned the sunflower mural I spent years staring at during yoga classes.

“Okay, we’re going to roll you out to inject the contrast dye now.”

The table slowly starts moving back out.

Still face down, I’m disoriented on where I am in space, and how long until the table would reach a stopping point.  Once stopped the dye was injected into the IV in my right arm.  I was warned some people get a metallic taste in their mouth, but I didn’t notice anything.

The table slowly rolled in again for contrast images.  All is dark.  I think I have my eyes closed, but I don’t really know.  It doesn’t matter.

Inhale.

Don’t move.

Exhale.

I listen to the rock sounds.  I don’t know how much time has passed.

The table starts to slowly roll back out again, and I feel dripping on my arm.

Has the IV blown?

Is that blood?

Don’t move.

Don’t move.

Don’t move.

A nurse arrives.  I ask about the dripping, moving my mouth and head as little as possible.

“Oh yes, looks like that’s a bit of saline.  Nothing to worry about.  I’ll clean that up.”  She wipes the fluid off my arm.  My fingers are tingling from numbness.  I wiggle my fingers slightly to regain sensation, while doing everything in my power not to move my arms or anything else.

The nurse’s hand covers mine.  “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.  We really need you not to move.  I’ll rub it.”

She gently rubs my left hand.  It feels nice.  My right hand is also numb.  She doesn’t touch that one.

But her other hand is laying softly on my lower back.  I appreciate the pressure.  A bit of comfort from an unknown stranger.  I was put in the MRI machine so quickly that I wasn’t sure who was in the room, or whose faces I knew.

The doctor, a faceless voice to the left of me: “Time for some lidocaine.  You may feel a pinch.”

A needle is inserted into my left breast twice with lidocaine shots.  A few moments later, another instrument (a needle I presume?) is inserted into the breast.

I think they’ll take the sample now.

“Okay, we need to roll you back in to confirm we have right spot.”

I’m momentarily shocked. I didn’t realize more images would be needed.

The table starts slowly rolling back in.

More time in the machine.  In the darkness.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Rock sounds.

Banging.

I can’t feel the instrument in my breast.  I wonder how it stays in place without anyone holding it.

Inhale.

Exhale.

The table starts to roll out again.  There’s discussion from the faceless voices; the placement isn’t right.  The doctor removes the instrument to try again.

Now I can feel pressure on my chest wall, and the movement of whatever has been inserted into my left breast.  I speak up to say “I can feel that” while still trying not to move.

They stop and administer more lidocaine shots.  More movement of the instrument in my breast, but now I only feel a bit of pressure.

The table starts again, slowly rolling back into the machine.

Inhale.

Rock noises.

Exhale.

Darkness.

Inhale.

Don’t move.

Exhale.

Tingling is slowly weaving its way through my body.

The rolling of the table starts again.  The faceless voices are again discussing the instrument’s positioning.

It’s still not right.

I think more lidocaine shots are administered, but I’m so focused on breathing and the numbness and pins and needles that I don’t know.  I’m trying to be a good patient and stay calm and still.  That’s my only job.

Everything tingles.  Everything hurts.  I don’t really have a sense of where my body is.

The instrument is placed for a third time.  The table moves back into the machine again to confirm placement.

More banging noises and darkness.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

I wish my yoga instructor friend with the fantastic calming voice was here to talk to me.

Exhale.

I wish someone I knew was here to talk to me.

Inhale.

I wish the faceless voices would talk to me.

Exhale.

Inhale.

I wonder how many more times we’re going to do this.

Exhale.

We need to stop doing this.

There’s excitement when the table rolls out next.

Faceless voice: “We’re in the right spot!  Okay, we’re going to take the sample now.”

A machine starts up with a whirl.  It sounds like the drill at a dentist, as if I were getting a filling.  I’m presuming it’s sucking the tissue out that’s necessary for the biopsy.  Thankfully my breast is numb from the lidocaine, and I don’t feel any of this.  I hear the supervising doctor instruct the resident to take a bit more.

Once the machine is turned off, everything moves quickly.  Several people are suddenly pulling me up from my prone, Superman pose, and instructing me to put my hands on bars.  It reminds me of the pommel horse you see during men’s gymnastics. It’s jarring after an hour of complete stillness, the light blinding.  I can’t feel the handlebars, all is numb.

A nurse has her hand on my left breast, applying pressure to the biopsy site.  The gown top is open.  I don’t know who is in the room to see my bare chest and I don’t care. The hands around my torso stabilize me and guide me as I’m flipped onto a different gurney.  Once on my back, they start wheeling me quickly out of the MRI room.

The first nurse is jogging alongside, still applying pressure to my breast.

Tears stream down my face.

Yoga breath.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Breathe.

Be Calm.

Breathe.

Be Calm.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Lights and ceiling tiles flash past my eyes.  The sounds of wheels moving beneath the table.

Wet tears on my cheeks.

I pay no attention to where we are going. I don’t look at any of the faces surrounding me.  They are still just voices.

A voice asks me if I need anything.  I request a tissue to wipe the tears.

—–

I was shaken when I left the doctor’s office that day.  Later I learned from MyChart that the procedure took 1 hour and 5 minutes. So no, the days following I gave little thought to the biopsy results.  I was too busy processing the experience to think forward to what the pathology would show.

My neighbor gets a quizzical look on her face when I state that waiting for results wasn’t that bad, “Well, that’s because you assumed you had it.”

This isn’t entirely true.

“Yes, I knew it was a possibility,” I reply, “But I’d also agreed to additional screenings.  I figured biopsies of suspicious areas meant they were being thorough, so I didn’t see a reason to freak out.”

Another quizzical look.  This doesn’t align with the podcast.

“You also aren’t through all of this yet.  Maybe looking back you’ll decide that waiting for the results was the worst part.”

I appreciated that my neighbor was chatting with me like a normal person.  Very few people know the gracious thing to say to someone who is dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

I’m guessing she felt she’d learned something that provided some insight – some bit of understanding that would lead to a moment of connection.  Maybe she envisioned me sighing and responding with some version of “Yes!  You get it!  That’s exactly how I feel!”

But I don’t need a podcast to tell me which part of cancer is the worst.

Marie Hall lives in the Midwest. This is her first published piece. We are thrilled she chose us to share her story. 

Guest Posts, motherhood

Unicorn: on Loss, Jealousy, and Value

March 9, 2024
unicorn

I had a sickening revelation.

It came after my friend Delphine texted me, saying she was going to join the 5 club. I have five children, and I immediately knew she meant that she was pregnant with her fifth child. “Congratulations!!” I wrote, along with heart and celebration emojis. “I’m so happy for you!” And I was, and I am.

But over the next few days, I began feeling melancholy and something else (wistfulness? sorrow?) about my friend’s pregnancy. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I was feeling. Was it because after five healthy full-term pregnancies and children, I have had three miscarriages in the last two years?

With the first miscarriage, it was already happening before I knew I was pregnant. I wondered about the lateness and the heaviness of my bleeding, along with cramping, and took a pregnancy test. A faint line appeared, and the following day, another test showed an even fainter line.

With the second miscarriage, I was somewhere between 10 and 12 weeks. The miscarriage was messy. I had never seen so much blood coming out of a person, and my children banged on the door of our one bathroom while I sat on the toilet, wiping and wiping again, flushing and flushing again. I soaked through pad after pad. My husband took the younger kids to a birthday party while I spent two hours at the ob/gyn’s office and then another eight at the ER, where they wanted to make sure I wasn’t losing too much iron and blood. I lay on a table in the sonogram room, blood dripping onto the floor, weeping. Eventually, I was declared fine enough to go home. This miscarriage was more physically traumatizing than it was emotionally traumatizing, though I absolutely grieved the loss and still do.

The third lost pregnancy ended somewhere between 8 and 10 weeks, a 10-week ultrasound revealing the lack of a heartbeat. But my uterus did not expel the dead body inside me. I opted for a D&C and then wept for days. That was December 2021. I still sometimes burst into tears at inopportune times: during church when Ariel stood at the doorway, smiling at her infant baby girl Eleanor; when women in the Wednesday moms’ group began sharing their stories of pregnancy loss and secondary infertility.

My three pregnancy losses still crush me. For years, since my teens, I had dreamed of a family with six children, and I thought that that would be the life I would have. I don’t know if the idea of six children is something God-inspired that I feel a desire to fulfill, or if I created the vision of a family of eight on my own, and it became a dream that I’ve gripped onto all this time.

Hear this: I was, and am, profoundly grateful for the children that I have, but I still grieve the loss of three would-be babies, and the chance to raise a sixth precious child. When I cried to my friend Mara about how guilty I felt being so sad after my second miscarriage when I already have five healthy, beautiful children she said; “No! It’s completely fine to still be sad. You can be happy and sad at the same time. Two things can be true at the same time.”

Mara’s words were a revelation to me, so I continued to allow myself to feel heartbroken about that loss, and later, about my third loss.

But this time, after Delphine announced her fifth pregnancy, I wasn’t sure that I was just feeling sadness over my own losses. That was definitely part of it, yes, and I do not think it’s unreasonable or impossible to feel sadness for yourself and your own losses, even while rejoicing with a friend’s exciting news.

But there was more to my feelings than resurfaced grief.

What was it? I began asking myself questions and came to a horrifying conclusion. I had felt something similar to this when my friend Jill, who has birthed four bio children, adopted the child they had been fostering since infanthood. Delphine is very thin with gentle curves in the right places. She has thick, chocolate hair that falls in waves. Jill is also incredibly skinny with a thigh gap to die for, even in her early forties after four pregnancies. Jill is a gorgeous blond. And both Delphine and Jill are nice people too: kind, generous, friendly. But Delphine’s and Jill’s outward beauty and their body sizes are my focus.

Here is what my horrifying epiphany was:

I am jealous of these other women for having as many children as me and being more beautiful. I have never felt beautiful, and I am not what the world claims is beautiful. I’m average, maybe a Plain Jane. I’m not accomplished as far as career success, trophies, exploits – things that would gain me nods of approval from others. I never cared much about a career; I’ve wanted to write since childhood, and I was a public school teacher for a few years (which I was not very good at). What I did care about was being a mother. And that, I did. That I did (and do) very well.

My body is fertile, and I felt a self-satisfaction, pride, and achievement in carrying five pregnancies, vaginally birthing five babies, and raising them. I enjoyed, and still enjoy, being a stay-at-home mom, and I’m good at it. Here in New York City, having five children makes me an anomaly. I’ve had my fair share of obnoxious comments from commuters and people on the sidewalk (“Are all those kids yours?”, “You should have each of your kids plant a tree [to offset their existence]”), and judgmental looks.

But I also frequently hear, “I don’t know how you do it!” along with a sigh of approval. And once, a woman smiled from ear to ear, and said, “Five kids? You’re a unicorn!”

Let me make clear that I did not have children in order to one-up anyone else; I conceived each child with my husband out of love and for the love of new life itself. I value human life, and I don’t treat my children’s lives as checkmarks of “things I’ve accomplished.” But on the other hand, carrying, birthing, and keeping alive, five human beings into teenagehood and childhood does require hard work and a tremendous amount of involvement. I have done that, and I do take pride in it.

I would never diminish the work or value of motherhood and mothering. Mothers and mother figures are cornerstones of society. Mothers arguably have the hardest job in the world. Being a mother or mother figure is a worthwhile and worthy venture, a prized treasure, an invaluable position. It is both exhausting and soul-filling.

Somewhere in my head, I know that having children is not a measure of accomplishment. If it was, then women with infertility are worth less; women who choose not to have children are worth less. And that is obvious malarkey.

But also somewhere in my head, I must doubt my worth so much that I wonder if having children is my only value. Since I am not skinny and beautiful and since I do not have a paying career, I am laying all my worth on my children. Until my discovery, I didn’t realize that I was often subconsciously thinking, “She is way more beautiful than I am, but at least I have five kids, so I’m still worth something.”

I was, and am, disgusted by the fact that I feel this way. It is not fair to my children. It is not fair to me. It is not fair to any woman anywhere.

At the same time, I am curious about what brought me to this point. What went wrong in me or around me, that I dislike myself so much, that I feel like having children is all I’m good at? Why do I dislike my body so much, that I think I am not worth as much as Delphine or Jill?

Like the three would-be babies bled out of me or were scraped out of me and disposed of, may the flawed and damaging thought about my lack of worth also bleed away and be disposed of. It needs to go. Like I am grieving my pregnancy losses, may I also someday grieve the fact that I ever wondered about my own worth, that I ever wasted brain space on feeling like I’m worth less than the beautiful people. May I smile at myself in the mirror, from ear and ear, and like the lady on the sidewalk, say to myself, “You are a unicorn.”

Hope Kidd is working on her MFA in creative writing at the City College of New York. She lives in Harlem with her husband, five children, and an assortment of pets. Hope enjoys writing about motherhood, mental health, and body image; and she is currently working on a memoir about my childhood in Zimbabwe. She has been published in MUTHA magazine, and in the print anthology “Fish Gather to Listen” (Horns and Rattles Press).